How We Lost 100 Pounds in 20 Weeks
A Weight Watchers Experience
by Judy and Larye Parkins
Our journey to a healthier life style started not long after we returned home from a visit with our son and his family in Wisconsin in mid-October 2002. We had eaten well and generally enjoyed our visit, and, like an earlier visit to New Mexico in August for our oldest granddaughter's wedding anniversary celebration, we had flown, following a several-year hiatus from air travel driven more by economics than terrorists and the security impediments to travel that followed.
We did notice that our dress-up clothes had gotten much tighter during the past few years of casual Montana living, and the airline seating seemed to grow ever smaller. Like many Americans, we had resigned ourselves to the myth that weight gain and the attendant health issues were a "normal" part of aging. We didn't think we were contributing to our health problems: after all, we did include fresh fruits and vegetables in our diet, and limited our red meat intake. High cholesterol? It must be genetic--even though we don't have a family history on which to base such a conclusion. But, in mid-October, we retired to the television set after dinner and started munching on the huge pile of miniature candy bar assortments purchased for Halloween, knowing full well that our neighborhood only gets a trickle of trick-or-treaters. The bathroom scales were edging up alarmingly, and all our clothing began to get snug. By the 20th of October, Judy finally said, "You know, a chapter of Weight Watchers meets in town. Several ladies in my quilting group go and have done really well losing weight, and I think it's time we went, too." Larye agreed, as we had both been members of Weight Watchers some time ago, and knew the program worked, at least it had for our somewhat younger selves. Without further reflection to think of excuses, we went to the local center meeting the next day.
Our first meeting and weigh-in was a real shock: in normal street clothes and no shoes, the scales tipped at nearly 15 pounds over what Larye considered his "normal" overweight self. Judy had fared a little better, having been busy with gardening and quilting, but was also gaining as the gardening season ended. This was due not only to our high-calorie munching preparing for the Fall food-centered holiday season, but also because Larye had been on restricted activity for eight weeks following laser eye surgery in early July. While he does commute to work by bicycle, the one-way trip is less than a mile, hardly a workout. His primary after-work workout, lawn mowing, was one of the proscribed activities, as was gardening, as well as weed-pulling and tree-pruning on our five-acre weekend cabin site. In fact, after he was put back on the "active" list, he found what he thought would be an enjoyable mountain bike ride up one of the nearby canyons in the Bitterroot Mountains was a grueling ordeal, nearly ending in disaster due to a crash caused in part, no doubt, to overloading the braking ability of the bike.
We immediately got into serious Weight-Watcher mode, following the basic principles:
Journaling: weigh and measure everything you put in your mouth, and write it down in the journal.
Count points: The Weight Watchers trademarked POINTS system provides a range of point values based on your current weight and activity level: POINTS are calculated from a simple formula based on calorie content adjusted downward for fiber content and upward for fat content.
Drink water: six to eight cups a day, something neither of us did before we started the program, but which is vital to effective weight loss.
Attend meetings: Weight Watchers members form a focus group and support group. Once a week, members get tips on behavior modification from the group leader (as part of the program), and share personal successes and failures.
Exercise: walking is the preferred exercise. However, our normal work (long-arm machine quilting for Judy) and commuting (four miles a day on the bicycle for me) activities make up the majority of our exercise, supplemented by a two or three-mile walk on weekends. We need to do more, sometimes difficult in a Montana winter.
We immediately started losing weight, at an average of more than two pounds each per week. After passing out approximately three one-ounce pieces of our 20-pound stash of Halloween candy, Larye took the rest to work and left the bag at the reception desk, where the entire amount promptly vanished.
The next step was participating in a food drive sponsored by our Weight Watchers chapter. We were encouraged to donate a supply of food equal to our weight loss. We went through the pantry and donated every food item that had more POINTS per serving than we were willing to incorporate into our personal weight loss program. No more temptation to use it up because it was there.
As we both had been in the program before--and had at least learned good nutrition habits even if we didn't always practice them--it was fairly easy to settle into a menu plan that wasn't much different than our "normal" menu plan: the only difference was measuring everything to keep portion sizes under control, and cutting down or eliminating fats in recipes. The first task, portion control, was vital. During our "fat" era, at least since all the children left home, our meal plan usually involved preparing a recipe and dividing the outcome into two servings--even if the recipe or package said it made four to eight servings. We now either modify the recipes to make two serving-sized portions, or refrigerate leftovers and plan to use them in our meal plan later in the week.
Cutting down or eliminating fats was difficult, but we found that the only legitimate need to add oil to a recipe is to infuse spices. We now use non-stick spray to avoid sticking and to emulsify very small amounts of oil added when preparing heavily-spiced foods. With the non-stick spray, small amounts of water can be added during cooking to control heat distribution and avoid burning, as the emulsifier in the spray allows the water to evenly distribute the natural and added oils during cooking. Steam-blanching vegetables prior to grilling them on a non-stick surface also ensures quick cooking wthout requiring oils, while still adding flavor.
Once we got the menu planning routine in place, we actually had problems getting enough POINTS to round out the day's food allotment. This is primarily because our normal diet consists of a large proportion of vegetarian meals. While we don't shun animal products, meat is not central to our normal diet, partly because of the relative expense and difficulty of storage, as well as the containment problem during cooking due to relatively high fat content and the attendant cleanup and residual odor problems. With lactose intolerance also a factor, we tend to use more soy products than dairy products as well. Egg substitute has, for the first time, earned a place in our refrigerator, as much for the cholesterol savings as the calorie bonus: a three-not-egg omelet prepared in with non-stick spray has the same point value as one poached fresh egg.
Thanksgiving, a traditional American food holiday, was approached with the same attitude toward menu planning we employ on a daily basis: select low-fat, nutritional foods from all the basic food groups, and prepare an appropriate number of servings that can be consumed within the limits of safe storage. We were on vacation at a mountain resort condominium during this holiday, with another adult couple, so the temptation to prepare mass quantities of food suitable for a 19th-century American extended farm family was entirely absent, since storage and transport of large quantities of leftovers was logistically impossible. However, holiday meals at home can be handled with the same attitude.
Christmas was handled slightly differently. We had as low-fat, low-cal dinner as available in a restaurant with one of our sons and his significant other in their home town a few days before the holiday, as they had other plans for the mid-week holiday. On Christmas, we had a normal meal plan similar to a Sunday at home, and didn't miss the traditional candy-stuffed stockings at all. Traditions don't need to be abandoned, but they need to be modified to account for the current situation. Cooking a huge holiday meal for two people or overindulging in sweets is not appropriate behavior, regardless of tradition. Since becoming "empty nesters," with our parents gone and children scattered across the country, we have substituted travel and quiet days at home for big family feasts on the traditional holidays, so integrating our weight-loss program with holidays was not difficult for us. Office gift exchanges inevitably involve homemade "treats," but we found that the Weight Watchers new program allowed us to indulge in moderation even during the weight-loss part of the program, so we were able to graciously accept the offerings and enjoy them. We even created our own favorite holiday confections in return, giving away all but the "proof" samples, which dutifully got recorded in our journals. Of course, a small piece of fudge replaced a bowl of yogurt with fruit on our menu, so the temptation to indulge often quickly evaporated. And, we found a dozen smoked almonds tasted just as good as a whole handful, so we didn't need to eat the whole can at once.
We don't consider ourselves deprived: we enjoy a varied and flavorful menu, never feel underfed, and are rarely hungry between meals. Breakfast is normally some form of packaged dry cereal with soy milk, orange juice, and coffee during the week, like we have been accustomed, except in much smaller portions. Our traditional weekend breakfasts vary from pancakes to cooked cereal to omelets, again, in much smaller quantities, or, in the case of omelets, using egg substitute, which has no fat and one-third the calories of fresh eggs. Bakery pastries are virtually gone from our diet during our weight loss phase, except on rare occasions at business meetings (but then, only one, instead of two or three). Snacks during the day have changed from our formerly nearly daily snacks of candy bars or pastries to the occasional low-fat granola bar or small serving of dried fruit. Lunches are taken at home: the entree varies, usually seasoned cottage cheese, white tuna in water, half a small avocado, or fat-free canned chicken, accompanied by whole-grain crackers, raw vegetables, occasionally pickles, and half an orange, apple, or banana, or a small serving of dried fruit. If we are away from home at lunch time, a low-fat small submarine sandwich or low-calorie small meal salad keeps the POINTS under control. Our food budget has decreased markedly, even though we now buy higher quality ingredients in smaller packages, simply because consume it in much smaller servings.
The evening meal is usually from our standard pre-weight-loss repertoire, ranging from middle-American meat-and-potatoes meals to ethnic Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern, or Indian-inspired fare, either vegetarian or incorporating small amounts of low-fat meat or seafood. The key is portion control, low-fat ingredients, and reducing or eliminating added fats. Ingredients commonly include a choice of boiled, baked, or grilled diced or shredded potato, or steamed rice, couscous, whole grains, or pasta. Low-fat soups and stews are quick and easy. Protein servings include grilled tofu or tempeh, lentils, garbanzos, black beans, pinto or red beans, seafood, white meat chicken, turkey smoked sausage, or lean pork: almost never beef, and occasionally eggs (or, more likely, egg substitute) or peanuts. The key to satisfying meals for us, especially with blander low-fat ingredients such as tofu or cottage cheese and subtler vegetable flavors such as turnips and cauliflower, is the use of spices, particularly those common in the ethnic cooking of peoples of the Mediterranean region, southern Asia, and the Far East. A little low-salt salad seasoning goes well on cottage cheese if added just before serving.
Cooking and eating in this manner yields meals averaging six POINTS per meal, ranging from three for a light breakfast to nine for an evening meal with meat, rice, or pasta. Since most overweight adults have a budget of about 24 POINTS per day, we usually have four to six POINTS left over for between-meal snacks or desserts. We prefer to use our "fourth meal" points for evening dessert and TV snacks, which usually consist of low fat vanilla yogurt with fresh fruit and/or a half-bag of low-fat microwave popcorn, and occasionally a low-fat muffin or slice of quick bread with an after-dinner coffee. We drink our coffee black, so sweeteners and whiteners aren't an issue for us. Our philosophy is, we would rather eat a small amount of "real food" occasionally than regularly eat a look-alike imitation. Using the POINTS calculator, we can determine whether or not the "low-fat" version will actually reduce the point value of a recipe serving. Surprisingly, many times it does not, so we use the standard ingredients instead of the fat-free substitutes, which may contain added sugar calories. Fat-free substitutes often do not taste the same: we have learned that many flavorings are fat-soluble, but require very little fat to activate the flavors, so we can reduce the fat in recipes, but not eliminate it entirely. A point or two a day of added fat is a small penalty to pay to ensure a satisfying meal. In fact, the old Weight Watchers exchange system had a requirement to include a fat exchange or two a day as part of a balanced diet.
So, here we are, at a milestone in our personal transformation, the magic 100-pound round number, approximately 50 pounds apiece, and our ultimate goal is in sight. Now that we know we can reach our goal of achieving an ideal body weight, we also know that we must forever maintain vigilance to keep at that weight: although we can consciously avoid purchasing high-fat, high-calorie foods, we know that to keep on track, we must continue to measure, weigh, and keep a journal of our food intake, and plan sensible meals around special occasions that involve high-calorie foods, such as social occasions and travel. Though we have been very disciplined during the short period we have been dedicated to weight loss, we know that there will be days where, despite our intentions, we will overeat. The key to success is to journal everything and keep on the low side of the range for a few days, and never lapse back into eating high-calorie, high-fat foods in large quantities. Using the POINTS Booster formula for exercise, we can look forward to longer bike rides this summer, possibly even some long-distance rides without either excessive carbo-loading or risking bonking from not eating enough for endurance. It's not about dieting, it's about life-style choices and behavior modification to enable us to realize our goals and sustain our chosen life style.